A Prize of War
Text & Photos
by Mike Gerken
from the Documentary film
The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon
©All rights reserved.
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Painting of the M/V Hauraki by J.E. Hobbs. Courtesy of the Wellington Maritime Museum.
The event unknowingly created one of the world’s greatest wreck diving locations in modern times. Sport divers the world over travel from afar to visit this small Pacific island nation to see first hand the result of this devastating attack. The ‘Hoki Maru’ being only one wreck site of dozens to explore. The Hoki Maru was not christened as such. Built in Scotland for the Union Steamship Corporation of New Zealand in 1921, the 450-foot long ship rolled off the slipway by the name of the M/V Hauraki. Her state of the art diesel engines would propel the ship on service runs between North America and New Zealand until 1942. The British requisitioned her for wartime usage at that time.
Truk Lagoon is known today as the state of Chuuk. The ‘Hoki’ is one of their premier dive sites with liveaboard and land based dive operators both making regular trips to dive her. She came to rest on the lagoon floor in approximately 150 feet of water. More than 200 feet of the forward section of the ship is splayed open like a peeled banana due to the violent explosion. However, the stern section is still remarkably intact and sitting upright. It is the artifacts found within the aft cargo holds that are the main attraction of this dive.
I first saw the Hoki Maru in 2003 while working on the liveaboard, Truk Aggressor II and later with another liveaboard, the Truk Odyssey. By the time I left in July 2008, I was fortunate to log more than 2,000 dives in Chuuk with more than 150 on the Hoki Maru alone. The ‘Hoki’ sits in an area of the lagoon that receives a fresh supply of blue water from outside the barrier reef offering exceptional visibility that can exceed 100 feet. Water temperatures in the low eighties and mild currents are the norm.
Upon diving the ‘Hoki’, I follow the vertical mast down that juts up to 70’ from the wreck below. Once to the bottom, I find myself at a depth of 115 feet and forward of hold number five, the furthest cargo hold aft. I make my way to the back and hover over the cargo hold and stare down in to the darkness between the hatch cover beams that stretch across the opening. These beams once supported the wooden floors that have long since rotted away. Perched atop the beams on the middle level is the remains of a bulldozer whose massive weight pressing down for 65 years has caused the steel beams to bend and twist like a pretzel. Each time I descend down in to this hold, I make a point not to swim beneath it. Even though the dozer has been sitting there peacefully for decades, you never know if that moment you happen to be underneath it, will be the moment ten tons of machinery decides to crash down upon you. It is better to be safe than sorry.
Trucks in the cargo hold of the Hoki Maru.
At this point, I glance at my dive computer and realize my stay at this depth is over. I pass another piece of machinery as I slowly ascend out of the cargo hold. A steamroller hangs perilously off the second floor and propped up only by one of the remaining rusted crossbeams. My head emerges from the dark, confined and silted quarters below to the open sunlit spaces on deck. I turn my light off and begin to breathe a little easier. Although I have just seen the highlights of the Hoki Maru, this dive is far from over.
I begin swimming toward the bow and discover lush soft corals, sea fans and large magnificent sea anemone’s four feet across littering the deck. A school of long nose emperor fish hunts aggressively thrusting their snouts in to the cracks and crevices of the corals in the hope of finding prey. Several big eye trevally and a few napoleon wrasse tags along in the hope of joining in on the spoils of the hunt. I even spot gray reef sharks circling overhead. This wreck, transformed to coral reef, has a plentitude of marine life. The warm blue water makes the scenery all the more surreal.
As I swim forward, the wreck becomes shallower until I come across a large section of the deck that is peeled back upon itself like an opened sardine can. Once I get to the edge of the wreck, I look out and all I can see are hull plates and twisted metal lying in the sand all around me. Any semblance of a ship is gone. The thick plating are bent as though they were made of putty. I gaze out at the destruction and contemplate the magnitude of the blast before me. I wonder in awe at the sight, but dread the fate of those that were anywhere near when the bombs ripped through the deck, igniting the deadly chain reaction of explosions below.
Thousands of beer bottles hidden inside the wreck of the Hoki Maru.
|When I come to my senses, I see a small opening in the debris and cannot resist the urge to explore within. I enter the hole and switch on my dive light. Lying before me, there are hundreds if not thousands of beer bottles with the name of Dainippon Brewery Co. imprinted in the glass. I am in what appears to be cargo hold number 3. The ceiling to the hold is completely blocked off by the decking that was peeled back from the explosion. The further I travel down the more bottles I see. Many of them are sitting perfectly aligned and nestled next to each other in the deep silt. The wooden cases the beer was shipped in have long since rotted away, along with the tin caps, leaving the empty bottles behind.|
I’m stupefied as to why the Japanese would allocate such valuable cargo space during wartime to non-essential supplies such as alcohol. Could it be that alcohol was used as a means of improving moral and hence placating the soldiers? Is it easier to persuade men to commit atrocities while under the influence of drugs?
With once last glance down at my pressure gauge, there is no doubting that it is time to ascend. As I make my way slowly upward, I study the scene below me. As always after such a dive, I ponder the sheer waste of human lives and materials in the form of the rusted remains beneath me. Only the beautiful and prolific marine sanctuary that this once noble ship has become uplifts my forlorn mood. Today, the wrecks of Truk Lagoon serve a purpose beyond that of war.
The Hoki Maru.An excerpt from the documentary, The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon.Visit the link above to view more excerpts from the film.
Mike Gerken is a professional underwater photographer, documentary filmmaker, writer and captain who markets his work through his company, Evolution Underwater Imaging. Mike’s stories and images have appeared in publications around the world and his documentary films, “The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge” and “The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon” have fast become industry classics.
The WWII Wrecks of the Truk Lagoon; authored by Dan Bailey; copyrighted 2000.
"The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon"
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